Disintegrating by mistrust


Software developers in a US firm became very critical of their counterparts in the Indian company. A dramatic increase in time-to-market pressures had led the US team to neglect the previously productive relationship. On the other hand, the Indian developers started grumbling about the lack of guidance, delayed feedback on their work and sudden changes in direction. Their junior status in the relationship made them sensitive to perceived lack of respect. The quality of their output suffered, as did the relevance of their suggestion.

Just as the relationship came on the verge of breaking down, a senior executive from the US Company stepped in and set things right, but at no small cost. Several experienced Indian developers had already left the project. Then, the US managers had to devote significant time and effort to getting the remaining Indian team members re-committed.

Clearly, the dynamics of collaboration are tricky. And strategically compelling alliances are too often undone by mistrust and misunderstandings between the firms. To avert or indeed rescue such situations, it is critical to understand how these dynamics escalate.

Sticky wicket: The basis for trust at the outset of a co-innovation agreement is often fragile. The partners may be competitors, like the automotive steel collaboration between Tata, Nippon of Japan and Arcelor of Europe. They may therefore have serious misgivings about the unintended transfer of skills or telegraphing of future strategies.

There may also be cross-cultural uncertainties. More so, if the firms are from unrelated sectors. An example would be when the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis and the US food giant Quaker Oats joined forces to create foods with added health benefits. When entering such colorations the level of mutual vigilance may be very high.

Arousing suspicions: In the early stages of collaboration, there are many potential sources of friction relating to the expected gains from the partnership and the process of working together. At the same time, the complexity of the collaboration and the physical remoteness of the partners may prevent them from evaluating their respective contributions accurately.

Where trust is low, minor deviations from expectations like adaptation difficulties or routine delays may take in disproportionate significance. Unsuspected cultural differences relating to spoken promises, time horizons, disclosure norms or decision-making protocols can be mistaken for attempts to frustrate or take advantage of the partner.

Self protection: When one partner starts to suspect a lack of commitment, goodwill or competence from the other party, it may cut back its own investment in the project, intensify controls or enforce contractual promises. Or else, fearing opportunistic behavior, the partner may become more guarded about sharing information or ideas.

Unfortunately, such actions often fail to resolve the perceived problem. Instead, they undermine the relationship by indicating a lack of trust and commitment – thus encouraging the other party to respond in kind. For example, the other party might hit back by adopting a strictly contractual view of the agreement, refusing to help on areas beyond the scope of the original provisions. This response may be viewed as confirming the very suspicions that triggered action in the first place.

Vicious circle: As suspicions mount, collaboration partners often start labeling one another, like “unreliable�, “unreasonable�, “profiteering� or “paranoid�. Unfortunately, such lenses have a tendency to distort whatever new information is received even if it happens to be contradictory. Labels unconsciously orient people’s attention and the way they make sense of data or events. Performance variances will be blamed on poor management or low effort, while neglecting external constraints.

As communications become strained the partners grow less aware of each other’s predicaments and less inclined to listen to ‘excuses’ or to provide the required support. Of course, once the partners no longer expect the collaboration to last each tends to take a short-term and limit its contribution until the relationship loses its reason for being. Then it is a disintegrating collaboration we are familiar with.